Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.Hebrews 1:1-2
The question I posed in the title of this Gem is sometimes called the Riddle of the New Testament. Some earlier versions of the KJV call it “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews”. But Paul identifies himself clearly in all of his letters whereas the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t. Why would Paul not follow his normal practice if indeed he wrote this letter? There is no logical answer to that question. When the book emerged into the clear light of history toward the end of the 2nd century, the tradition as to its authorship is seen to divide into three different streams.
The Alexandrian Stream
In Alexandria, it was regarded early as the work of Paul. Pantaenus, Clement’s teacher, explained why Paul doesn’t address his readers under his own name in Hebrews, as he does in all other letters.
- Out of reverence for the Lord
- to avoid suspicion and prejudice
- he as apostle of the Gentiles refrains from addressing himself to the Hebrews as their apostle
The first two of those reasons are without substance or foundation. Yet Clement accepted this explanation, and adds to it that the original Hebrew of Paul’s epistle had been translated into Greek by Luke. That too is without substance. That Paul wrote in Hebrew was assumed from the tradition or inference that the letter was addressed to Aramaic-speaking Hebrews. But Clement noted the dissimilarity of its Greek from that of Paul’s epistles, and thought he found a resemblance to that of Acts. In other words the style was more like Luke’s. There are many objections to these claims, least of which Pantaenus’ spurious reasons for Paul not writing under his own name.
Origen started with the tradition of Paul’s authorship, but he knew other churches did not accept the Alexandrian view. There was debate as to whether Hebrews should be accepted into the Canon. This was in part the underlying reason for the attempt to categorise Hebrews as Pauline. Origen felt not only the language, but the forms of thought were different from those of Paul’s epistles. He adopted the hypothesis that the ideas were Paul’s, but that they had been formulated and written down by some other disciple. He found traditions that named Luke or Clement of Rome as the author without solid evidence.
The African Stream
In Africa, another tradition prevailed, namely that Barnabas was the author. This was the only other definite tradition of authorship that prevailed in antiquity. Tertullian wrote “There is also an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas. Tertullian was not expressing his mere personal opinion, but quoting a tradition which had so far established itself as to appear in the title of the epistle in the manuscript, and he indicated no consciousness of the existence of any other tradition. If it was originally, or at any time, the tradition of the African churches, it gave way to the Alexandrian view in the 4th century. A Council of Hippo in 393 considered there were “thirteen epistles of the apostle Paul, and one by the same to the Hebrews.” A council of Carthage in 419 consider there were “fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul.” By such gradual stages the Pauline tradition had established itself.
The Western (Roman) Stream
The Letter to the Hebrews was known in Rome toward the end of the 1st century AD. There was no explicit reference to the book or its author but this fact shows that Hebrews already had some authority in Rome. All the evidence shows that in Rome and the remaining churches of the West, the epistle was originally anonymous. No tradition of authorship appears before the 4th century. Stephen Gobarus, writing in 600 AD, says that both Irenaeus and Hippolytus denied the Pauline authorship. The epistle was known in Rome toward the end of the 1st century, and if Paul’s name, or any other, had been associated with it from the beginning, it is impossible that it could have been forgotten by the time of Hippolytus. The western churches had no reason for refusing to admit Hebrews into the Pauline and canonical list of books, except only that they did not believe it to be the work of Paul, or of any other apostle. It seems therefore certain that the epistle first became generally known as an anonymous writing. Even the Alexandrian tradition implies as much, for it appears first as an explanation by Pantaenus as to why Paul concealed his name. The idea that Paul was the author was therefore an Alexandrian inference.
Not a Letter of Paul
However there are many other indications that Paul is not the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.
The internal evidence in the text of the letter is strong for the author not being Paul. This letter does not contain Paul’s opening or closing formula. The style and language and the categories of thought and the method of argument all differ widely from any of Paul’s other letters. Paul quotes the Old Testament from the Hebrew and Septuagint, but the writer of Hebrews quotes only from the Septuagint. Paul’s formula of quotation is, “It is written” or “The scripture saith”. The writer of Hebrews uses the formula “God or The Holy Spirit, or One somewhere says.” For Paul the Old Testament is law and stands over against the grace of the New Testament, but in Hebrews the Old Testament is covenant and is the “shadow” of the New Covenant. Paul’s characteristic reference to “Christ Jesus” and “Our Lord Jesus Christ” are not found in Hebrews. “Jesus Christ” appears only 3 times and “the Lord” twice whereas these phrases are used by Paul over 600 times in the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Paul’s favourite doctrine, justification by faith, does not appear even once, neither is it hinted at.
However, there is another conclusive way of proving the author of Hebrew is not Paul. The position of the book in the Canon is proof enough. The arrangement of books in the Bible are indicative of the ancient world pattern of the arrangement books in terms of the size of the work as evidenced by the Prophets. The Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets are arranged according to the size of the book. Take note of the position of where the Letter to the Hebrews has been placed in the New Testament. If the Letter to the Hebrews had been written by Paul it would likely have been placed after 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Rather it is placed after all of the other Pauline letters. A clear indication that Hebrews was not regarded as written by Paul. Curiously it is placed before the letters of Peter, James and John, but in the order of James, Peter and John. I have always puzzled as to why the standard order of Jesus inner circle has been changed in the placement of their letters. The only possible reason I have come up with is that the placement of these non-Pauline letters are in order of size as they are. Now that is interesting!
The name of the letter does not appear in the list of New Testament writings compiled and acknowledged by Marcion, nor in the Muratorian Fragment. These are the first lists of the New Testament books that come from antiquity. The Muratorian Fragment definitely assigns letters by Paul to only seven churches, and so by omission excludes Hebrews.
The Writer’s Style and Background
The writer was evidently a person of culture, who had a masterly command of the Greek language. Hebrews is written in pure idiomatic Greek. The writer had an intimate knowledge of the Septuagint, and was familiar with Jewish life. (S)he was a Hellenist and well-read in Hellenic literature. The argument proceeds continuously and methodically, though not in strict accord with the rules of Greek rhetoric, and without the interruptions and digressions which make Paul’s arguments hard to follow. The writer has been linked with Luke as the most “cultured” of the early Christian writers.
Let’s Evaluate Our Candidates
Barnabas – As we have seen above, Barnabas was the considered option under the African tradition. He was a Levite of Cyprus and therefore had extensive knowledge of the Jewish priestly system, a feature of Hebrews (Acts 4:36). He was also a travelling companion of Paul on one of his journeys, (Act 13:2). Another ancient writing called “the Epistle of Barnabas” has been falsely linked to Barnabas to infer Barnabas was an author but it has no hint of a connection with Hebrews. Some point to the occurrence of the word “consolation / encouragement ” in Barnabas’ name (Act 4:36) and in the writer’s description in Hebrews (Heb 13:22) which includes a word ‘encouragement’. This seems only a lame attempt to find proof. There is nothing that renders it impossible that Barnabas was the author, nor is anything known of him that makes it probable; and if he was, it is a mystery why the tradition was confined to Africa.
Luke, Clement of Rome, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila – I have combined these names together because they all shared a link with the church in Rome. There are those who claim one of these to likely have been the author by virtue of this connection with the Jews in Rome. Luke and Apollos are regarded as high on the list by virtue of being authors in their own right. But that doesn’t carry much weight as an argument, for the same reason it is not likely to be Paul. Their writing styles are not the same and don’t match the style of Hebrews.
A case has been put forward by Harnack for either Priscilla and Aquila or Priscilla alone as being the author. Harnack sees the interchanging use of “I” / “we” as indicating a joint authorship between the two and they were present in Rome. He argues that if it were these two, it would explain the absence of the author’s name, due to the prejudice against women leaders or writers. But that does not explain why Aquila’s name was not retained. Also nothing that is known about Priscilla and Aquila would suggest the culture and the familiarity with Alexandrian thought possessed by the writer of Hebrews. Harnack also appeals to the evidence he sees in the text of Hebrews to the feminine mind, but his claims are highly disputed.
Apollos is the strongest candidate among the aforementioned group. All that is known about Apollos matches the author of Hebrews. He may have learned the Gospel from “them that heard” (Heb 2:3); he was a Jew, “an Alexandrian by race, a learned (or eloquent) man,” “mighty in the Scriptures,” “he powerfully confuted the Jews” (Acts 18:24), and he belonged to the same Pauline circle as Timothy and Titus (1Co 16:10-12; Tit 3:13; compare Heb 13:23). The Alexandrian type of thought, the affinities with Philo, the arguments from Jewish tradition and ceremonial, the fluent style, may all have issued from “the eloquent Jew of Alexandria.” But it does not follow that Apollos was the only person of this type.
Silas was a Roman citizen (compare Acts 16:37) and accompanied Paul during the greater part of his 2nd missionary journey (Acts 15 through 18). However, there is no indication that Silas had any connection with the Jews in Rome. Neither is there any indication that Silas was a writer. Nothing has come down from antiquity to indicate that he is a strong candidate for the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews.
Philip the Deacon (Acts 6:5), also called Philip the evangelist (Acts 8:4-8, 26-40) is unlikely to have been the Christ follower to have written Hebrews. Philip’s missionary journey ended at Caesarea, where he raised his four daughters, reputed to be prophets, and where, about AD 58, he entertained the Apostle St. Paul and his companions on their last journey to Jerusalem (Acts 21:8). According to Greek tradition, he became bishop of Tralles (modern Aydin, Turkey). No literary works have been attributed to his name.
Aristion or Ariston is known from early traditions of Papias of Hierapolis, as an elder from whom Papias learned apostolic traditions. Aristion is identified by Ado of Vienne (874 AD) as “one of the seventy-two disciples of Christ.” It is claimed he became the Bishop of Smyrna. Apparently, Papias learned much from Aristion, who was in close association with the disciple John. But apart from that little is known of his life and achievements, much less of anything he was reputed to have written.
Despite all of my research I must agree with Origen who wrote “God alone knows.” in relation to who the writer of Hebrews was. Which accords with Euesebius a century later who wrote “But who wrote the Epistle, in truth, God knows.” (Eusebius Hist. Eccl 6.25.14.) The irrefutable conclusion has to be that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews remains anonymous. The only serious contender after all of my following the rabbit trails is Apollos, but there is no solid evidence on which to base that supposition. Thus we must conclude with Origen and Eusebius that only God knows, along the writer.
But that doesn’t prevent us from gaining much from this Letter to the Hebrews as we shall see.
Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews is indeed a riddle, maybe even wrapped up in a mystery but I don’t think it is an enigma.Ian Vail
Mystery is another name for our ignorance; if we were omniscient, all would be perfectly plain.Tyron Edwards
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.Benjamin Franklin
I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.Robert Louis Stevenson